Four years after having a dog with autoimmune disease, I am happy to report he is doing well. My dog’s autoimmune disease is called IMT, or immune-mediated thrombocytopenia. There are many autoimmune diseases that can affect dogs. Fortunately, my dog survived, so we are sharing the things that worked, what didn’t work, and what we’re doing differently these days.
My dog’s autoimmune disease nearly cost him his life. Thanks to rushing my dog to an emergency vet at midnight, we were able to get a proper diagnosis and treatment. Time is crucial with most autoimmune diseases in dogs.
Back when my Cocker Spaniel, Dexter, was first diagnosed, I wrote an article about my dog’s first week with IMT. Since then, I’ve learned a lot and am sharing our journey here in this article. I recommend you work in conjunction with an internal medicine veterinarian who specializes in diseases like IMT. Your regular veterinarian should be kept apprised and, in the loop, as well.
TL;DR: He recovered and one year later, he is thriving, thank Dog. I am not a veterinarian, but I am a dog health and wellness writer/blogger and I’ve amassed an arsenal of knowledge in speaking to specialists, reading, research, and learning about this disease.
How Is A Dog With Autoimmune Disease Diagnosed?
My dog was first diagnosed at a local emergency hospital in the wee hours of a weekend morning several years ago. He was spunky, bright, alert, and had a great day. However, I went to brush his teeth and noticed he had bleeding gums. Along with strange reddish splotches that looked like a rash on his ear flaps and gums, I knew something was wrong.
We rushed my dog to the local emergency vet at midnight, where he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called IMT. It is sometimes called ITP. I journaled everything from the first scary moment to his first follow-up visit.
You can read IMT in Dogs: How my dog survived an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune diseases in dogs can be difficult to diagnose. Depending on the type of disease suspected, common tests include:
- Bloodwork panels
- MRI to obtain spinal fluid if brain inflammation is suspected
- Skin biopsy if a skin disease is suspected
- Chest x-ray
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Tick-borne disease blood testing
For complete details about how dogs are diagnosed with autoimmune disease, read my detailed article called Help for IMT: Immune Mediated Thrombocytopenia in Dogs
Diary of a Dog With IMT
To read our diary in real-time as it happened, please refer to the Diary of a Dog with Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia blog post.
Management of My Dog’s Autoimmune Disease: Month One
I wish I could say everything was sunshine and roses after my Cocker Spaniel beat IMT. After spending four days in the hospital, he was discharged with instructions, follow-up appointments, and a slew of medications.
Expect to have a lot of bloodwork to monitor your dog’s platelet count if he is diagnosed with IMT. For the first week after discharge, Dexter’s bloodwork (CBC and chemistry panel) was performed three times on three separate occasions. All three times, he was improving.
As time went on and the platelets rose and stabilized, our internal medicine visits became infrequent. Eventually, his regular veterinarian took over on the case for blood draws and checkups.
On October 28, almost 10 days after discharge from the hospital, Dexter became very sick. Symptoms included body shakes, arched back (sign of pain) vomiting, and the inability to hold food or water down. We rushed him to the emergency room where a battery of tests was performed. It was on a weekend and of course, it was late at night.
After blood work, an abdominal x-ray, and abdominal ultrasound were performed, Dexter was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis. Of note, his amylase level was super high and his temperature was elevated. His gums were tacky and he was dehydrated. His platelets were normal and his bowel movements normal.
In-house he received subcutaneous fluids, a dexamethasone injection, Cerenia to stop the vomiting, and Buprenex for pain. He was discharged with tramadol and metronidazole.
Over the next several weeks things stabilized, we visited the Internal Medicine vet, various medications were dispensed and blood levels were drawn on a semi-regular basis.
Dexter’s steroid dose was slowly tapered so that we could determine what dosage he needed to remain stable. We were reminded not to give Dexter vaccines, to have titers performed to ensure levels were viable, and to get a rabies vaccine waiver, which is legal in my state.
NOTE: My vet runs a rabies titer on Dexter every year and every year, his rabies coverage is completely normal and his level comes back more than adequate.
Pancreatitis From My Dog’s Autoimmune Disease
About a month later on November 26th, Dexter vomited, had loose stool, was shaking, and displayed the same shaking and arched back signs associated with pancreatitis. As we rushed him to the emergency vet, he vomited bile five times.
An abdominal ultrasound was suggestive of pancreatitis, as it showed a swollen pancreas and other diagnostic signs. The internist sent Dexter’s blood sample to an outside lab for a spec serum CPL test. According to IDEXX, “Serum Spec CPL concentration is significantly high which occurs with pancreatic inflammation.”
However, if your dog has no signs of pancreatitis but has a high serum spec CPL, it doesn’t mean he has pancreatitis. Additional tests should be checked and monitoring is crucial. In Dexter’s case, he had classic pancreatitis signs.
Again, he received subcutaneous fluids in-house along with pain medication and Cerenia to stop vomiting. We were discharged with Cerenia and instructed to stop all other medications.
The internist felt steroids could be the cause. The very steroids that were saving my dog’s life from the autoimmune disease were now causing severe nearly life-threatening bouts of acute pancreatitis.
We are told Dexter would need to be on a low-fat diet for life. Over the next year, I boiled his organic beef protein source that I added to his Dr. Harvey’s whole food diet. This helped remove the fat and he did very well on this regimen.
Two days later, an ultrasound recheck of his pancreas looked much better. Steroids were completely stopped, as per the Internist. Dexter had been slowly weaned to a low dose of prednisolone that we know kept his platelet level normal. Stopping the medication was risky, but continuing them could kill my dog.
If Dexter ever relapses with his IMT autoimmune disease, we know what dosage of prednisolone he could tolerate at the lowest dose. However, we hope that never happens so he can avoid steroids and everything else associated with IMT treatment.
Treatment and Monitoring My Dog’s IMT Disease
Over the next few months, we continued to monitor Dexter’s blood levels, and he completely recovered from pancreatitis and IMT.
As of December the year he was diagnosed, Dexter remained stable. He had a complete thyroid blood panel as ordered by Dr. Jean Dodds proved within normal limits/normal.
By this point, Dexter had a total of seven abdominal ultrasounds, two of them because of acute pancreatitis episodes.
I began introducing supplements back into Dexter’s diet in January, a few months after his IMT diagnosis. We added one supplement at a time and waited a month in between to ensure nothing triggered his IMT. Dexter’s weight remained stable.
Why I Believed Dexter Recovered From IMT
Time is of the utmost importance when your dog gets an immune system disease. The longer you wait to go to the vet, the worst the prognosis becomes. Also, the doctor treating the dog should be specialized and familiar with this disease. Just as humans see specialists for specific things, so too, should dogs.
In the past year, the number of dog parents I’ve heard from whose dogs succumbed to an immune disease is alarming. One thing many of them had in common was waiting too long or not seeking specialized care. Other times, the dog simply died despite all they did.
If you take one thing from this article, it is this: know what is normal in your dog, and look now. Take photos. Pink gums. Earflaps. Eyes. Then if abnormal happens, you act. Know that any change in urine or bowel movements should be checked. Don’t wait. Moments matter. Don’t judge someone else’s dog’s illness with your own dog’s issues. Every dog and every treatment plan is different. Trust your gut. Don’t wait. I share to help others and so you feel better prepared as a pet parent and questions to ask, things to watch for.
Had we waited until morning to seek veterinary care, our dog would have either been dead or been much harder to treat.
Document everything in your dog’s journal or diary. I created the DogMinder for pet parents. It is a canine health and wellness journal under $10 bucks on Amazon.
Veterinary Specialist Protocol
I firmly believe the protocol of my dog’s internal medicine specialist saved my dog’s life. Every dog is different and what may work for one dog, may need to be altered for another.
Dexter eats a healthy diet. I am often asked what food my dog eats; perhaps one of the most often-asked questions. He eats a whole food diet from Dr. Harvey’s, and he thrives on the Veg-to-Bowl formula mixed with organic cooked lean ground beef. I rotate it with Canine Health or Healthy Weight beef from Dr. Harvey’s. I firmly believe in the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ adage. I love this food so much that I asked Dr. Harvey’s if I could be a brand ambassador, and they said yes.
We don’t use chemicals on or in the dog. My first Cocker Spaniel suffered major adverse reactions to a chemical flea preventative spot on, and it literally burned the hair off her back, never to grow back.
There is nothing that is 100 percent guaranteed to prevent fleas and ticks. There are things you can do, to minimize your dog’s risk. I firmly believe the lack of toxic chemicals on or in my dog helped to save his life. We do use heartworm preventative because we live in an area that is mosquito heavy.
Here’s what we use for more natural flea and tick prevention in dogs.
Dexter takes an oral heartworm preventative. I take him off it for the winter months and then go back on in the spring. Dr Dodds suggests every 45 days instead of 30 in the active months. I am following that.
No More Vaccines
We don’t do the typical yearly vaccines. We are not anti-vaccine; we are anti-over-vaccination. We follow the vaccine protocol of Dr. Dodds, but my dog will no longer be getting any vaccines, and that includes the rabies vaccine.
Yes, that is a requirement unless you have your vet write to the state veterinary department and explain your dog gets a waiver and why. Any stimulation like a vaccine puts my dog at risk of death. Dexter’s rabies protection is tested yearly with titers and he is completely covered.
Dr. Runde told Dogster magazine, “Vaccines stimulate the immune system, and if a dog has an autoimmune disease, the vaccines can adversely stimulate the dog’s system.”
He also says that once a dog has an immune-mediated disease, it is “best to keep vaccines to a minimum or to stop them. Instead, the dog can get titer tested.”
Incidentally, my dog was affected by kennel cough years ago when he used to get the vaccine against it. We stopped that vaccine years ago, too.
Dexter is given a few supplements including: Cosequin Advanced for his arthritis, fish oil twice daily with food for immune protection and heart health, and Dr. Harvey’s CoEnzyme Q10 for heart health,
For close to one year, we kept Dexter on melatonin 3 mg one to two times a day to help keep his platelets up. This was on the advice and protocol of his internal medicine specialist.
Exercise and Mental Stimulation For Mt Dog
We play with and walk Dexter daily. Indoor fun is something all dogs of all ages can partake in. Here are over 100 things you can do with your dogs indoors.
We show and tell our dog we love him. He is brushed, cared for, gets ample mental stimulation, and I truly believe in the power of love.
What Can You Do To Prevent IMT in Dogs
There is not a whole lot you can do to 100 percent prevent IMT or its nasty sister disease, IMHA, from affecting your dog. There are, however, things you can do to lessen the likelihood.
Follow the above and make the right decisions for your dog in terms of a healthy diet, proper supplements, exercise, mental stimulation, vaccine protocol, and limit chemical exposure.
I’ve written a whole blog post on how to strengthen a dog’s immune system, but always check with your pet’s veterinarian first.
Blood Draws Protocol
For the first week or two, we did blood draws to check platelet count every few days, then once a week, every two weeks, once a month, quarterly, and now we check it at least every six months. I err on the side of caution, so I prefer he has it checked every three to four months.
Hope for Dogs With IMT
If your dog has been diagnosed with IMT, there is hope. It is an expensive disease, but it is worth it to save your dog’s life. I would do whatever is needed for my dog, and I realize not everyone is equipped to do the same financially. It’s not easy, but these are our dogs, folks. We owe it to them to do our best. We’ve had Nationwide pet insurance for Dexter since he entered our lives and used the same plan for our first Cocker Spaniel. We’ve been policyholders for over 25 years.
I don’t get paid to tell you this. We now pay $170 a month for this policy, but it is so worth it. It went up each year with various health issues, but it pays for itself. We have a top-tier plan. There are other variations. They covered close to 90 percent or more of the expenses incurred in a timely fashion.
If you don’t want pet insurance, I recommend a savings account at the very least; something you can rely on in a time of crisis.
There are resources for dogs in need whose owners have limited funds, which you can read about here: Help If You Can’t Afford Your Dog’s Medical Bill
One thing that helped me immensely is talking with others who have dogs affected by IMT. I run a Cocker Spaniel health and wellness group on Facebook, which you are welcome to join if you have an interest in the breed and their well-being.
There are other groups on Facebook that you can search on which deal specifically with IMT and IMHA. IMHA tends to be the scarier disease, but anything that attacks a dog’s immune system is a red alert.
Take care of your dogs, be the person they think you are, and stay strong. Here’s the video I did last year when Dexter was discharged. I should also mention that our friends supported us, cared, prayed, and worried every step of the way. Their strength kept us strong, and we are forever grateful. It truly takes a village, and as corny as it sounds, love can and does build a bridge.